Be Exotic

As Veterans, we hold a powerful tool to employ on our quest for a first-rate education: our stories.

Our experience in the Armed Forces makes us different from the average student. In the words of a scholarship advisor and friend, we are “exotic.” There’s no getting around this fact. In a country where less than one-percent of the population serves, we represent a tiny portion of society, and people are curious about us. This curiosity can be used to our benefit to help us get the best education possible.

Over the past five years, I have employed my military experience to great effect, not on my resumé, but in personal statements and essays. As a result, I have been able to augment my education through the Post-9/11 GI Bill in a variety of ways, such as pursuing my graduate degree in London. To be blunt, I’ve used my military experience to my advantage. And you can, too.

It’s Not Cheap or Dishonorable

At this point, I know there are some Veterans who will read this and think “I don’t feel comfortable using the story of my service for personal gain.” I understand that sentiment, because at one time I felt the same way.

I got out of the Army in 2006 and went straight to community college. As an older student who deployed twice to Iraq, I wasn’t interested in student life or anything that would distract me from my ultimate goal–getting my degree and getting on with life. I walked briskly between classes with my head down, ignoring students around me. I chose not to seek out other veterans on campus–there were many–out of a fear of somehow getting sucked back into the world I had just left. I was in college for a new and different experience.

When I transferred to the City College of New York (CCNY) in 2008, I began to apply for scholarships and fellowships. Without fail, these required personal statements or essays describing leadership challenges, organizational experiences, or service stories. At first, I refused to write anything about my military service, because I felt that it would be dishonorable to do so, or it would be cheap. I thought that if I was going to be successful, it would be of my own accord and academic record–not because I had war stories.

The truth is though, for those of us who joined shortly after high school, without our military experience, there really isn’t much else to write about.

Thankfully, I had a number of excellent mentors at CCNY who strongly encouraged me to include my military experience in my applications. After much wrangling, I relented. Not only did I begin to include my military experience, but I highlighted it.

For most of us, our military service is the defining experience of our lives. To omit that is doing an injustice to ourselves, and placing us at a disadvantage. Our service should not be omitted, but celebrated. The things we have done and achieved are often incredible, and reflect well on both ourselves and the Armed Forces. Why hide that?

Embracing my military experience not only led me to academic success, it also forced me to pay attention to student Veteran issues on campus and find ways to get involved in veterans advocacy. With a group of other City College Veterans, we started the City College Veterans Association–an advocacy and social club for Veterans on campus. Having a community of Veterans on campus that encourages one another and shares stories builds confidence, and makes owning the Veteran identity easier–and a lot more fun!

Techniques, Tactics, and Procedures

There are a few things to keep in mind when leaning on military experience in academic settings.

1.  Keep it clean. “No ***, there I was…” is a great way to start a story with buddies at the bar, but doesn’t work well on a personal statement. Also, unless it is absolutely necessary, leave out the blood and gore.

2.  Highlight leadership. Enlisted or officer, most of us have served in leadership positions at some point during our military careers. Good leaders know that it’s not just about telling people what to do. Stories about complex leadership challenges while serving stand out.

3.  Fight stereotypes. Most Veterans I know are extremely thoughtful and have very complex ideas on the nature of war and military service. This surprises a lot of people. Find stories that demonstrate this.

4.  Be a story teller. People love stories, and Veterans have the best. When you get an opportunity to share your story, think of it as an opportunity to sharpen it, and tell it better (without embellishing, of course!).

5.  Know when to reveal, and when to conceal. Sometimes a military story just isn’t appropriate or doesn’t fit. Don’t force it.


The Post-9/11 GI Bill is an amazing benefit, but it doesn’t do everything for everyone. Here are links to some scholarship programs where military stories can be leveraged:

Pat Tillman Military Scholarship – merit/need-based scholarship that provides support for service members and their families
Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship – provides support for undergraduate students for study abroad programs.
Boren Awards – provides support for language study abroad (with a public service requirement attached)
Harry S. Truman Scholarship – merit scholarship that provides support for graduate study (with a a public service requirement attached)

And here’s a link to a comprehensive list, courtesy of CUNY.

Good luck!

Don Gomez is a two-tour Iraq War Veteran and a spokesperson for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He graduated from City College with a BA in International Studies in 2010. Gomez is now attending the School of Oriental and African Studies pursuing an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies. Twitter: @dongomezjr.

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Published on Jun. 21, 2011

Estimated reading time is 4.8 min.

Views to date: 223


  1. Denise Boulet June 24, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    wow! This is great! After I processed off active duty in Jacksonville Fl I enrolled at a local community college but veterans were not liked or welcomed at all. So college for me was an uphill battle, no pun intended. Anyway, I lost interest in continuing my education past 2 years. Fortunately the Navy offers Navy Knowledge Online which is very helpful to me. And it’s free!

    I wrote a book entitled 1navywoman which tells about my abusive childhood and how I turned my life around by joining the U.S. Navy but I didn’t spend a lot of time on my various duty stations. I think I was too embarrassed.

    But now I’m encouraged to write more. Well, I did write a second book which my current publisher refused to publish for whatever reason. When that manuscript is returned to me, I’ll redo it and emphasize my military career. Reading this has encouraged me to do so.

    1navywoman can be purchased at the above web site. I’m having a going out of business sale on them so the price is greatly reduced!

    I wish you success in your life, career and education.
    Denise Boulet

  2. Ken June 23, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    Great inspiration man..I can totally attest to being one of the vet’s that has gone through my college experience “with my head down”. I have written about my military experiences in some papers on campus, but hesitate to tell those in my class that I am a combat vet. I fear that they will not accept me for who I am and what I have done as the 1% of the country that has served, and sadly this has affected my affiliation and participation in on-campus activities.

    I do not hold it against the 18-19 year old’s in my class that they have no idea what I went through, but feel that it is best to just keep to myself, graduate on time and with a high GPA so that I can land a good job. Being in the military has both matured me, and has made me assess what is important in my life. Getting drunk like most classmates is not high on my to-do list…performing well in my studies is though.

    I appreciate the list of the scholarships…and will be checking them out!!!

  3. RODNEY BOONE June 23, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    I loved your story here man are so right but you say you get away from blood -gore I dont have a story that dosent have it in it I wish I could be as strong as you and go to college but I was disabeled in a vibed and lost one of my eyes and that was just the start of it …but what I would like to do is give my GI BILL to my daughter how can I do that at least she could use it to go to college if you can help please send me some info thanks …

  4. jim white June 21, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    Exotic is indeed a humbling experience and to include as to make of the 99% who did not serve in the military, yet that peer-centiage (x) who chose too serve in philanthropic causes in their communities is an exotic and humble exchange to become a greater part of today towards a collaboration matrix of getting forward as a team. TEAM, Together Everyone Achives More. Society will need both leadership experiences to advance the challenges our local, regional, national and international cause and effect concentrics thus solutions from 2011 to 2050 is your era to deliver upon.

    Exotic is a part of chivarly and ethos, is a defining platform for these new academic quests. Many veterans I know seek to be carpenters or brick-layers. And want to be the best at this calling as any college vet students shares this ethos. Senator Akaka when he discharged in WW2 worked as a welder while attending night school to become a school teacher then a Principle, the lives he touched in the halls of school we will never know. Countless ideas are formed from the military boots on the ground experience, yet still a work in progress for transition is one part me and one part we thus to achieve more means one must be humble in all quests tapping into direct and concise values when needed to bridge balances. I have witnessed all era’s transition in this thinking as the prime example of success is the basic training class we all took, the land nav course is still the best course in academics I ever had as a veteran-tool in my community partnerships towards engaging the all. My Native American Warrior veteran brothers and sisters call it the compass journey of IUWEME as transition is a live-long circle process investing all areas of life. best to you Sir, jw, vet & granddad.

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